16 Days of Activism 2021: Violence Against Women and the World of Work

Content warning: blog focuses on violence against women

Between November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and December 10, World Human Rights Day, we observe the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.1 This year, the Global 16 Days Campaign is focusing on two themes – femicide, or the gender-related killing of women, and how domestic violence impacts the world of work.2

A recent report by the World Health Organization found that violence against women is “devastatingly pervasive,” with nearly one in three women worldwide experiencing physical or sexual violence, a number that has remained largely unchanged for a decade.3 While these numbers are alarmingly high, they drew on data from 2000 to 2018 and therefore do not reflect the social and economic impacts of COVID-19. In April 2020, Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, began sounding the alarm for what she described as the “shadow pandemic,” the rising rates of violence against women and girls as increasing numbers of countries enacted lockdowns and other restrictions to stem the spread of the virus.4 Livelihoods have been disrupted, healthcare services have been interrupted, schools have been closed and social networks have been limited, all of which contribute to increased isolation and stress. Presenting data gathered in 13 countries during the pandemic, a new UN Women report found that two in three women reported that they or a woman they know experienced some form of violence, and only one in ten said victims would seek help from the police.5

An Intersectional Lens

An intersectional approach considers the interconnected nature of people’s identities (e.g., gender, age, race, class, ability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, etc.) which can create overlapping systems of discrimination and disadvantage. Certain populations of girls and women face a heightened risk of violence; for example, Indigenous women around the world experience even higher rates of violence and femicide. In Canada, the homicide rate of Aboriginal women is almost seven times higher than that of non-Aboriginal women and in the United States, murder is the third highest cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women.6 Non-binary and transgender women are also increasingly subject to violence; Human Rights Campaign, which documents murders of transgender people in the US and globally, described an “epidemic of violence” with 2020 as the most violent year since their records began in 2013.7 COVID-19 has intensified the inequalities faced by these communities.

Violence in the World of Work

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) intersects with the world of work in complex ways. Violence – either at home or in the workplace – is a violation of women’s human rights and a barrier to their economic empowerment. The impacts of violence may limit women’s mobility or disrupt their ability to work, which may result in dismissal from employment. One of the most common forms of SGBV in the workplace is sexual harassment. A recent report by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) notes that sexual harassment or violence at work can affect women’s productivity, work attendance and ability to advance and increase earning capacity. Entire economies are affected: one study estimates that sexual harassment in Australia results in $2.6 billion in lost productivity, or a loss of about four working days per case of sexual harassment.8  ICRW also notes that while earning an income can provide women with the means to leave abusive relationships, increased economic activity can actually increase the risk of violence in some cases. When discriminatory social norms position men as primary breadwinners, women who challenge this by earning an income may experience backlash as men seek to reassert control.9

What is MEDA doing?

MEDA’s focus on economic development means we have not traditionally worked directly on issues of violence against women. However, we are increasingly aware of the impact of violence on socioeconomic development, particularly on women’s livelihoods, wellbeing and rights. Recognizing our limited experience in this area, we are partnering with local organizations already working in this space, where appropriate.  

Examples of MEDA’s work include:

A commitment to measuring gender-based violence in our work. Responding to this complex issue requires an understanding of the problem, and committing to collecting data acknowledges and helps to close a significant global gap

  • The MEDA Kenya team found that clients on the Global Affairs Canada-funded M-SAWA project were observing increased levels of verbal disagreements/arguments, violent actions/physical abuse and community unrest, particularly among women, suggesting an increase in sexual and gender-based violence. Recognizing that MEDA does not specialize in responding to SGBV, the Kenya team decided to provide information and guidance to client businesses, sending a detailed letter to project partners with information on available services. The letter noted that in April 2020, the national gender helpline saw a 300% increase in calls over the previous month. The letter listed several toll-free, 24-hour helplines that provide counselling, support and referral services, shelters where survivors can seek safety, medical services, and legal aid.
  • With high literacy rates and widespread mobile and internet connectivity, MEDA’s Ukraine Horticulture Business Development (UHBDP) project team was able to use its project website and gender equality-specific landing page to provide information and resources on SGBV, including hotline numbers to organizations able to respond and provide services to those experiencing violence.
  • An important part of combatting violence against women is engaging men as gender equality champions. Because men are often the perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence (at 90 to 93%), they are integral to the solution. With training and reflection, men can understand their role in preventing and combatting SGBV and helping to create a more gender equitable society. On the Strengthening Small Business Value Chains project (SSBVC) in Tanzania, MEDA engaged men as gender equality champions, to counter high levels of SGBV among project clients as revealed through a mid-project gender equality analysis.
  • MEDA’s “Ethiopians Motivating Enterprises to Rise in Trade and Agri-business” (EMERTA) project engaged a local women’s rights organization to conduct training for government partners on women’s economic rights and living lives free from violence. The government partners then provided this training to men and women farmers and small business owners. Many training participants were not aware of legal protections from violence and discrimination, and were particularly struck by how cultural acceptance of sexual harassment held women back from fully participating in society and the economy.

What can you do?

If you want to get involved in the 16 Days of Activism, consider the following suggestions: 

  • Know your workplace’s anti-harassment and violence policies.
  • Learn more. Read some of the resources shared by the 16 Days Campaign, 16 Days Advocacy Guide or UN Women.
  • Research organizations in your community that offer services, such as domestic violence support services. Consider donating or even volunteering.

The Center for Women’s Global Leadership invites us to, “imagine a world without violence,” and to work for this world. It is possible.

  1. Gender-based violence and violence against women are terms that are often used interchangeably because the majority of gender-based violence is perpetrated on women, and most violence against women is inflicted for gender-based reasons. This blog focuses on violence against women. See Council of Europe. What is gender-based violence? https://www.coe.int/en/web/gender-matters/what-is-gender-based-violence
  2. For more information on these themes, please see the Campaign’s website: https://16dayscampaign.org/
  3. World Health Organization. Devastatingly pervasive: 1 in 3 women globally experience violence. March 9, 2021.  https://www.who.int/news/item/09-03-2021-devastatingly-pervasive-1-in-3-women-globally-experience-violence
  4. Mlambo-Ngcuka, Phumzile. Violence against women and girls: the shadow pandemic. Statement Date: Monday, 6 April 2020. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/4/statement-ed-phumzile-violence-against-women-during-pandemic
  5. UN Women. In focus: 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence. November 15, 2021. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/in-focus/2021/11/in-focus-16-days-of-activism-against-gender-based-violence?gclid=CjwKCAiAs92MBhAXEiwAXTi25yRADlEPtYY4zPHnEAdC2TjFu74DSEzNHOq2OIGrv5dYrifzzG0YNRoCbOkQAvD_BwE
  6. UNODC, Global Study on Homicide, p. 32 (2019 and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report,” Urban Indian Health Institute, Seattle Indian Health Board, p. 2 (2018) https://www.uihi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Missing-and-Murdered-Indigenous-Women-and-Girls-Report.pd, quoted in https://16dayscampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/2021-Femicide-Advocacy-Guide.pdf
  7. https://www.hrc.org/resources/an-epidemic-of-violence-fatal-violence-against-transgender-and-gender-non-conforming-people-in-the-u-s-in-2020
  8. Cited by International Center for Research on Women / Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment and Equality. (December 2020). Preventing and Responding to Gender-Based Violence, a Critical Component of Economic Development and Women’s Economic Empowerment. https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Preventing-and-Responding-to-GBV-a-Critical-Component-of-Economic-Development-and-WEE_Dec2020_CWEEE.pdf
  9. Ibid
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  • Jennifer Denomy is the Technical Director for Gender Equality and Social Inclusion at MEDA. In this role, she develops and leads MEDA's strategy to promote increased economic inclusion for excluded populations, particularly youth, women and rural populations. She has expertise in incorporating women and youth into markets, supporting entrepreneurship, promoting financial inclusion and increasing access to business services. Recently, she managed GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women), an agricultural value chain project in northern Ghana which improved food security and economic empowerment for over 23,000 women.